Ian Robertson and James Bligh both attended the second of the Urbanarium debates – “Be it resolved that we should build fewer towers” – and combined forces to write this analysis:
Towers win – but do we?
It was a very close race the whole time, with the vote splitting 51 to 49 percent in favour of building fewer towers and ending at 52 to 48 percent in favour of building more towers. (With a number of ‘extra’ votes at the end. Some people didn’t seem to do their Oxfordian duty and vote twice. For shame on all your houses!)
The affirmative side accepted that towers will be built, and even should be built, but that there are other things that should be built also – the ‘Missing Middle’ referred to in Brent Toderian’s debate in the Urbanarium Density debate.
The negative side based their argument on the economics of towers, and that with ‘silly’ land prices, towers are the only viable option. Further, since some midrise is built with vinyl siding, so all will be – so it’s best avoided altogether. Surprisingly absent from the debate was the correlation of building typology to land speculation, or of any mention of the poor/refugees/disabled.
An interesting point was raised by an audience member, who asked whether or not some of the collateral damage involved with building towers (gentrification, shadows, social exclusivity, etc.) could be solved by design. If our towers are “gated communities that prevent social diversity”, can we alter the way they work to make them more inclusive?
Poor Doors and Mixed Communities
Is there a way to avoid the ‘Poor Door’ which is increasingly inherent to condo towers (Main and 2nd being one, with segregated facilities and entrances)? The argument that they aren’t gated communities falls flat when 20 percent of the tower’s residents cannot access the amenities and community features of the tower. As has been argued by some on this blog, there is not a clean and easy way for renters to pay amenity fees; therefore they would be free riders on a building’s amenities. Is it possible to address this split, to figure out how to allow the rental side to ‘pay’ for the amenity (given that they do pay rent), or get over the fact that they don’t, and enjoy the ‘good’ of having a mixed community override the ‘fairness’ of only having those who pay accessing facilities.
The ‘Poor Door’ is but one example. Ignoring code constraints for a moment, what if some walls of each condo were glazed in such a way as to give you the opportunity to interact with your neighbour(s), if you so chose? What if each floor of market condo required at least one unit of rental, live-work, low-income and/or public housing? Would this breed social solidarity?
What if each floor needed direct access to common and/or green space? Are there new forms of tower that might save us? This question can be levied against low-rise as well (as there are certainly anti-social short buildings too).
However, typically low-rise designs have been more likely to experiment with their formulae, and, especially in North America, highrises have not. (Ken Yeang’s towers, some from Norman Foster, the green tower by Stefano Boeri (Habitat, left above), and Ole Scheeren’s recent Singapore ‘landscraper’ (Interlace, above) are all good examples of different thinking).
The ‘pro-tower’ side further based its argument in the current ‘normal’ by which a developer buys/assembles land, has to rezone, pays CACs, builds a tower, and sells it to whomever can/wants to buy. The stated benefit of this is that the ‘extra’ paid for high-level units allows the creation of much cheaper units below, unlike midrise where all units are almost the same cost vertically (so neither premium nor cheap). This presumes that the developer chooses to price some units ‘affordably’, but as there is no requirement specifically to do so (except for the percentage of ‘affordable’ housing they are sometimes required to build) there is no guarantee that this will manifest. Is legislation then the answer?
If these savings don’t manifest, much of the pro-tower’s argument goes out the window. Assuming these savings are valid, however, this pro-tower argument is persuasive long as this ‘normal’ is the only model available. If models from elsewhere are followed, the condo cost is either not tied to the land cost, or less so – if one uses a bit more imagination and uncouples these things (whether through co-op, land trust, building on city/crown land, the way Whistler built its own housing, right)) then this justification goes away. The model of Vienna (city-as-developer) is a good one here. It will also be interesting to see what comes from the 20 sites the city has made available to the Federal Government’s $$$ to build affordable housing.
Alterlaa, 1976 , the largest Viennese social housing development, with over 3,000
Overall, while there might be many good aspects to a well-designed tower, there can also be many negative effects, which are potentially harder to remedy in a tower (green space, social space, health issues occurring on high floors, shadows, solar PV or thermal retrofit, and mechanical systems).
Even with all of the substantial convincing done otherwise, it remains hard not to agree with the ‘Build Fewer Towers’ side. Regardless, the current binary condition does few people much service (save developers, and those collecting CAC’s), and a diversity of housing forms would better accommodate a diverse population with diverse needs.
Based on our ‘normal’ current conditions and trajectory, more towers remain a fait accompli. We ought to be more creative and make that fate a choice, and not the only port in a storm. More towers, sure, but more creativity and choice also.
Oh, and the ‘missing middle’